"Government money makes government art," or so the saying goes. And while government and college are not exactly the same thing, neither is famous for churning out truly resonant art and literature. With this in mind, I went to Borders on Saturday and saw the drawn-out, two-hour debut of five eager writers fresh from the academic establishment.
Kate Sterns began, reading from her novel-in-progress, Down There by the Train. A man just out of jail stumbles upon a Dickensian house inhabited by a Miss Havisham. The lady and the ex-con talk meaningfully about book-burning and her poisonous herb collection, all the while drinking what we eventually discover is poisoned tea. The woman sitting next to me exclaimed, "I love her turns of phrase!" One especially popular metaphor? "A loose coil in the couch strained against the cloth like a wayward priest."
In the title story of her collection of shorts, The Great Dark, Hillery Hugg's narrator speaks from two points in his life: the present, in which he is on a boat bound for the dark, uninhabited Arctic, and the past, in which he photographs murder scenes in Old New York. The slummy glamour of Hugg's story evokes Luc Sante's Evidence, the recent collection of early 1900s New York police photographs, from which it would appear Hugg derived many of her verbal images.
Perhaps in deference to the many parents who came to Austin for the fellows' graduation and who were in attendance at the reading, poet/playwright Robert Lee kept one poem's curses out of earshot. His first manuscript is titled Rumors of Distance and of Closure. In one poem a boy throws a stick and in another a dog runs twice in a "serpentine panic." Lee's dramatic monologue Mr. Gruenwahl Turns to the Garden contained the best line of the afternoon: "Just this evening I heard him fellating the janitor."
Stephen Smith's relentlessly cute novel-in-progress, Man Down, takes place in Austin during a hot summer and centers around a nerdy grad student in the English Department's "Center for Rebellion Studies" who gets involved in not one but two plots to kill the President of Mexico.
Poet Susan Marshall dedicated her reading to a photograph she took years ago in Morocco. A boy in the image fascinated her and "without researching Morocco or anything" she wrote a series of poems from the boy's point of view, learning via "imagination" that the kid has a friend named Escado, the dental particulars of a father's broken teeth, and a sister who likes scarves.
Academia has endowed these five young writers with literary proficiency. They exhibit good diction, clever "turns of phrase," and a solid sense of character development. But as the reading mercifully drew to a close, it was as though nothing had really been said. For all the water-sipping and serious intonations, the reading never escaped the accomplished but ultimately hollow realm of "the workshop." - Ada Calhoun